Sukhoi not-so-super jet. What is SSJ-100 crashed in Sheremetyevo? 

Sukhoi not-so-super jet. What is SSJ-100 crashed in Sheremetyevo?
Whose fault is it? Photo: The CrimeRussia

The horrific catastrophe in a Moscow airport yet again raises questions about the value of human life. It is counterproductive to discuss the behavior of the passengers or actions of the crew. The main questions are: what aircraft are used in Russia and what rescue system is in place? In this particular case, the responsibility lies with the aircraft producer and operator. As it is known, many air carriers refuse to purchase SSJ-100, while others keep these jets idle most of there time.

The Sukhoi Superjet 100 air liner belonging to Aeroflot and flying from Moscow to Murmansk requested an emergency landing ten minutes after the takeoff. 

Later, the captain said that a lightning has stricken the aircraft, communication was lost, and the plane switched to the manual control mode. 

At 18:30, it has landed after making several jumps on the runway – as if the air liner was going to carry out a go around. As a result, one of the landing gear legs was broken, the rear fuselage hit the ground and caught fire.

The aircraft engulfed in flames stopped, and the passenger evacuation by inflatable escape slides activated in the fuselage nose section by flight attendants began. 

According to Aeroflot, the survivors have left the plane in 55 seconds – while the standard evacuation duration is 90 seconds. 

Yevgeny Dietrich, Minister of Transport of the Russian Federation and Chairman of the Commission for Investigation of the Catastrophe, noted that the first fire truck has arrived to the burning aircraft two minutes after the landing. Six more vehicles arrived in four minutes. The fire extinguishing has taken 18 minutes. 

Only 37 persons, out of the 71 (including 5 crew members), managed to survive. Forty one passengers were killed. Nine people are in hospitals.

The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR) instituted a criminal case under part 3 of Article 263 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (violation of the rules for traffic safety and operation of the air transportation systems entailing by negligence the death of two or more persons). The Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) established a commission to investigate the accident. The Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Transport (Rostransnadzor) launched extraordinary inspections of Aeroflot, Sheremetyevo Airport, and the State Corporation for Air Traffic Management in the Russian Federation. 

Reaction 

First media reports appeared on the same day after 19:00. Initially, news agencies mentioned several injured persons, then – 1 victim, then – 3, 10, 13... Shortly before midnight, the ICR provided the exact number of victims. As usually, federal TV channels have broadcasted the information about the accident after the international news. 

Users of social networks had actively discussed whether the actions of the ground services were operative enough or not, what mistakes could be made by the crew, and that the passengers from the rear fuselage could be killed because the people sitting in the nose section had tried to pick up their carry-on luggage from overhead compartments. 

This version was suggested by Interfax citing “a well-aware sources”. In fact, people, who managed to evacuate with their bags, can be seen on numerous photos and videos posted on the Internet shortly after the catastrophe.

One of this persons was Vladimir Evmen’kov, Mayor of the closed city of Severomorsk. In an interview to Sever FM radio station, he said there was no stampede during the evacuation. “People were standing in aisles indeed. For instance, I was not the first to exit; when I rose from the seat, it was impossible to move forward. There was a woman with child in front of me; they did not move – apparently, they were afraid to inhale carbon monoxide. In that moment, running to the exit would mean trampling over the people. Therefore, I was just standing in the aisle for some time. I would like to repeat: it was impossible to move; there were people in front of me,” – Evmen’kov said. He added that some people started taking their bags from overhead compartments while they were standing and waiting.

Later, another passenger – Oleg Molchanov, whose seat 12A was in the middle of the aircraft – has also refuted the version about people with bags constraining the evacuation. He wrote on an aviation forum that people with bags “were from the business class; these bags were small and hadn’t constrained anybody. There was no stampede – one woman fell in the isle, but others quickly put her back on the feet and pushed out”.

According to Molchanov the problem was totally different: “If you have noticed, no inflatable escape slides were activated in the rear section. Even if they were activated, there was an inferno there. The majority of the victims died instantly; almost no survivors among the people sitting after the 12th row”. Molchanov believes that “the people rushed to the nearest exit, and, for them, it was the rear exit. And the second variant: they could be killed by the fire engulfing the wing”. The aircraft “burned down like a plastic cup; glass of cabin windows started melting even before the stoppage”.

Flight attendant Maksim Moiseev died trying to save passengers – he had tried to open the exit door in the rear section but failed. 

Aside from the ‘blank noise’ in the infosphere, the established facts and actions of respective authorities depict a pretty grim picture. 

Minister of Transport Yevgeny Dietrich said that his ministry has no reasons yet to suspend flights of Sukhoi Superjet 100. The Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsiya) also is not going to restrict flights of these aircraft. Russian air carriers whose fleets include SSJ-100 don’t see any problem in their further usage. 

On the other hand, a petition demanding to prohibit flights of Sukhoi Superjet 100 was posted on Change.org on the day of the tragedy. Some 170 thousand people have signed it to the moment. 

The ICR has suggested several versions of the catastrophe, including “insufficient qualifications of the pilots, air traffic controllers, and persons conducting the technical inspection of the plane”. The investigation also considers a hardware malfunction and unfavorable meteorological conditions among the possible causes of the accident. 

However, lightning bolts are not dangerous for modern air liners. In the last 20 years, only 8 such aviation accidents, out of some 3 thousand, have resulted in plane crashes.    

Погибший бортпроводник Максим Моисеев

Flight attendant Maksim Moiseev was killed in the catastrophe

ICR investigators have already questioned pilots Denis Evdokimov and Maksim Kuznetsov operating the burned aircraft and air traffic controllers Denis Naumkin and Pavel Mager’. Kommersant newspaper wrote, citing sources aware of the results of a conference chaired by ICR Chairman Alexander Bastyrkin, that the investigation considers pilots’ errors the main cause of the accident. This conclusion was made prior to the examination of on-board recorders and other tests. 

Allegedly, the pilots were not skilled enough in the manual control mode – when the automatic control of the minimal acceptable ground speed, acceleration state, and angle of attack is of. Therefore, the crew could rely only on the cockpit indications and their own professional skills. As a result, the pilots exceeded the maximum speed and overshot the landing spot by more than 1 km. Experts believe that, even in that situation, the landing could be save. However, according to Kommersant, the pilots have exceeded the sinking speed as well – and the touchdown was too heavy. 

Baza wrote, citing an anonymous pilot, that the aircraft speed during the landing approach could not be law because the high landing weight requires larger ascentional power and, accordingly, speed. In addition, the indicated air speed must be exceeded after switching to Direct Law – i.e. when the flight is controlled only visually, without use of electonics.

Траектория полета борта RA-89098 по данным flightradar24

Flight path of plane RA-89098 according to flightradar24

“The landing was weird: touchdown, liftoff, and the second attempt of the crew to land the plane – another touchdown and another liftoff. After the third liftoff, the highest one, we started yelling, of course, on the air: “Take balked-landing action!” – air traffic controller Denis Naumkin comments the landing of SSJ-100. 

According to Aeroflot, Evdokimov, who was piloting the aircraft, was considered an experienced pilot. In total he has 6.8 thousand hours of flying experience, including 1.4 thousand hours on Superjet. Two years ago, he became the plane captain. 

Other potential mistakes of the crew include the decision to fly through the thunderstorm front and land without consuming the fuel. 

Vladimir Romanenko, Honored Aviator of Russia, told Sputnik news agency that SSJ-100 is unable to dump the fuel because this is a short-haul regional aircraft. The description of its fuel system does not include such a possibility. 

The ICR intends to examine the actions of ground services in Sheremetyevo. According to Ilona Borisova, Head of the Flight Attendants’ Professional Union, the rescue operating procedure was not followed and firefighters arrived to the scene too late. In fact, many experts are wondering: why weren’t fire trucks and ambulances waiting for the landing plane on the runway?

RBС Group reports, citing its sources well-aware of the investigation progress, another indirect fault of the crew. The pilots haven’t shut down the engines after the stoppage and opened the window in the cockpit – this could augment the air current and intensify the fire. The engines were on until the extinguishing. 

It is necessary to note that the pilots – who had stayed inside until nearly the end – were going to evacuate through the opened cockpit window. The captain ordered the second pilot to leave the cockpit by a rope and remained in the airplane. Second pilot Maksim Kuznetsov exited the aircraft, did not find Evdokimov outside, rushed back through the inflatable slide – and took the captain off the plane in his arms. 

On the way toward the catastrophe 

The crashed Sukhoi Superjet RA-89098 was built in 2017 and on September 28, 2017 started commercial operations. The aircraft made 1525 flights and clocked up a total of 3183 hours in the air. 

According to Aeroflot, on Sunday, May 5, 2019, the SSJ-100 made three flights before the departure to Murmansk: from Saransk to Sheremetyevo (flight duration – 1.5 hour; arrived at 07:05 MSK), from Sheremetyevo to Saratov (1.75 hour; arrived at 12:12 MSK), and from Saratov to Sheremetyevo (landed at 13:58 MSK). 

A source in the aviation industry told Kommersant that this aircraft had only one serious failure in the past: in January 2018, it was unable to extend the flaps during the push down. However, at that time, everything came off well. 

However, according to Baza, it had one more accident – in October 2017, the plane has collided with a bird during a flight. Still, in April 2019, it passed the scheduled technical maintenance and was cleared for flights. 

This is not the first accidents with casualties involving Sukhoi Superjet airplanes. In May 2012, an SSJ-100 has collided with a mountain during a flight demonstration in Indonesia. All the people onboard – 37 passengers and 8 crew members – were killed. According to the final report published by the Indonesian aviation authorities the catastrophe was caused by errors of pilots and technical issues with flight control equipment in the Jakarta airport.

Разбившийся в Индонезии Superjet

Sukhoi Superjet wreckage in Indonesia

In April 2013, the cabin depressurization alarm went off in an Aeroflot SSJ-100 flying from Dresden to Moscow. The aircraft returned to the departure airport. The examination showed that the ground crew failed to completely shut off the decompression valve in a cargo compartment. In July 2013, in the course of certification tests, a pre-serial Sukhoi Superjet has landed with retracted landing gear in Keflavík International Airport, Reykjavík, Iceland. There were five people onboard, one of them was injured. The right engine of the aircraft was damaged. After repairs, it resumed flights. In June 2015, an SSJ-100 flying from Moscow to Dresden had to return due to the separation of the skin panel of the left engine strut. The plane safely landed in Sheremetyevo; nobody was hurt. In February 2014, an Aeroflot SSJ-100 flying from Moscow to Odessa had to return to the departure airport shortly after the takeoff due to the separation of the left engine cowl. The engine strut, leading-edge slat of the left wing, and fuselage shell on the portside were damaged. The investigation established that, during the ground maintenance, the aviation tech failed to close the fan and engine cowls. In October 2018, an SSJ-100 belonging to Yakutia Airlines and flying from Ulan-Ude to Yakutsk skidded off a runway. Its gear legs were damaged, no one was injured. The accident was reportedly caused by ice on the runway. Finally, in March 2019, an Aeroflot SSJ-100 flying from Moscow to Thessaloniki had to return to Sheremetyevo due a crack in the windscreen panel.

Командир самолета Денис Евдокимов

Plane captain Denis Evdokimov

Several flights were cancelled or interrupted due to problems with the air conditioning system, wing mechanization, cabin depressurization indicator, engines, fuel system, or onboard computer system. No one was hurt in these cases. According to Mash Telegram channels, the main reasons behind the frequent incidents with Superjet aircraft are lack of replacement parts and high cost of repairs. 

Representatives of the aviation industry, including pilots and flight attendants, sharply criticize the plane. Pilots dislike the side-stick installed in SSJ-100 instead of a control wheel. A flight attendant known as +PlusUltra+ wrote on social networks that the back door shifting mechanism freezes during the flight; and once the door simply fell off during an attempt to open it. 

Flight attendants Ekaterina Solov’eva was dismissed from Aeroflot for calling Sukhoi Superjet “a piece of shit” after the crash in Indonesia and wishing this to happen in her company “to sell these planes back to somebody!”

Второй пилот Максим Кузнецов

Second pilot Maksim Kuznetsov

Former military pilot Yuri Sytnik, a member of the Presidential Commission for Aviation Development, also noted the poor quality of the air liners in an interview with Daily Storm news portal. 

“Passengers! Open your eyes and stop buying tickets on Superjet... The people paid for their death from their own pockets!” – Sytnik said. He believe that the main reasons behind the accidents and catastrophes involving SSJ-100 are corruption, embezzlements of funds allocated for the aircraft design, and incompetence of some high-ranked officials. 

Sukhoi is ours! 

Sukhoi Superjet is the first Russian aircraft developed after the collapse of the USSR. It was designed by Sukhoi Engineering Bureu specializing in fighter jets. Its length is some 30 m, while height – 10.3 m. The passenger capacity is 98 to 108 seats; the flying range in the basic configuration is some 3 thousand km. The maximum flight altitude is 12.2 km. The official aircraft price is $35 million.

Sukhoi Superjet 100

Sukhoi Superjet 100 (Photo: Aleksei Demin)

The project development started in 2000; the first aircraft took a flight in 2008; and its commercial operations commenced in 2011. According to the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), some $2 billion have been spent in 2003–2016 on the aircraft design. Boeing, Snecma (France), and Alenia Aeronautica (Italy) were the partners of Sukhoi. As a result, the share of Russian-made details in the aircraft did not exceed 35–40% as of 2018. 

PowerJet company, a joint venture of UEC NPO Saturn (Russia) and Snecma, produces SaM146 engines for SSJ-100. This company is also involved in the engine production for Boeing and Airbus. 

In 2005, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft has presented Superjet in Le Bourget expecting to get at least 800 orders by 2024 – 300 orders for the Russian market and 500 for international customers. However, only 186 planes have been produced by now. 

The main operators of SSJ-100 are Russian air carriers: Aeroflot (50 planes), Yamal (16), Gazpromavia (10), Azimut (9), and the Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (EMERCOM) (2). Mexican airline Inerjet operates 22 SSJ-100 aircraft. One more plane flies in Kazakhstan and three – in Thailand.    

Транспортировка сгоревшего-SSJ-100

Transportation of burned SSJ-100 (Photo: Sergei Fadeichev/TASS)

In spring 2017, the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation has reviewed the aircraft operations and found out that the average daily flight time of SSJ-100 in Russia is much less in comparison with its foreign competitors. For instance, in 2017, the average flight time of Sukhoi Superjet 100 in Russia was 3.3 hours per day versus 10 hours per day for Airbus 320/321 and Boeing 737. The possible reasons were lack of replacement parts and their lengthy delivery timeframe, as well as mechanical features of the engine requiring scheduled repairs after 1000–4000 hours of work instead of the promised 7500–8000 hours. 

Vedomosti newspaper reported, citing top managers of four airlines using SSJ-100 and people close to leasing companies purchasing these aircraft, that the problem is in the engine element supplied by French company Safran. Cracks may appear in combustion chambers or oil retainers after 2000–4000 hours or work (i.e. at the second year of the aircraft use). In some cases, the engines require capital repairs even after 1000 hours or work. In December 2018, it was announced that Safran has improved its combustion chamber and all the engines will undergo the modernization to eliminate the issue. 

Aeroflot, the largest operator of SSJ-100, had never officially criticized the plane – but some documents indicating its poor quality had leaked to the media. For instance, in April 2018, BBC Russian Service obtained a classified air safety report of Aeroflot – and more than half of the incidents listed in the document involved Superjet. 

Alexei Navalny, who used to be a member of the Aeroflot Board of Directors, confirms this. According to Navalny, the statistics of failures of the aircraft was concealed from the public. Printouts were given to members of the Board of Directors for the duration of the session and than taken back from them. “Of course, no one had explained this by political reasons, – Navalny claims. – But obviously, the statistics was concealed for the sake of prestige. The new Putin’s aircraft could not be bad”.

The state had literally pressed the planes on air carriers – for instance, Aeroflot agreed to purchase them only on super-beneficial terms – almost 50% discount on the official price (all producers grant discounts to big customers but these rarely exceed 25%) and, more importantly, guaranteed compensations for failure downtime in the amount of $12 thousand per day. It must be noted though that the buyer has frequent legal disputes with the seller, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, on this subject. 

This is not surprising – in 2012, at the second year of the SSJ-100 usage, 40% of technical failures in Aeroflot had fallen on 10 Superjet planes constituting only 8% of its fleet. Apparently, the aircraft producer hadn’t expected such a high rate of failures, too. 

According to a source of Vedomosti close to the United Aircraft Corporation, a half of SSJ-100 planes belonging to Aeroflot remained on the ground in 2016 – but the company could afford this thanks to compensations for failure downtime. In 2018, the newspaper wrote that it is more profitable for Aeroflot to keep SSJ-100 idle rather than to use them. 

Unlike Russian companies, especially those partially owned by the state, like Aeroflot, foreign air carriers were unwilling to purchase Sukhoi. Those who had acquired it (nobody knows on what conditions) started terminating the contracts shortly afterwards. 

For instance, Armenian company Armavia – the first one to receive a serial Sukhoi Superjet 100 – has announced the refusal to use it two years later. In 2016, Red Wings Airlines refused to use SSJ-100 due to the high cost price of its flights per seat. In August 2018, Yakutia Airlines announced problems with the summer flight schedule due to lack engines caused by the high cost and duration of their repairs. Only two engines, out of the eight, were fully functional. In early 2019, Irish company Cityjet, the sole European purchaser of SSJ-100, refused to use them. Cityjet had leased out its 7 aircraft with crews to Belgian carrier Brussels Airlines – that, in turn, was displeased with the low flight time of the planes. 

Indonesian company Sky Aviation and Laotian carrier Lao Central had used SSJ-100 for a short time, then ceased their flights, and put the aircraft into storage.

In November 2017, Jose Luis Garza, General Director of Interjet, the foreign carrier having the largest Sukhoi Superjet fleet, has reported problems with SaM146 engines, replacement parts, and maintenance. For airliners purchased in 2013–2015 have been withdrawn from service and used as replacement parts for the still operational aircraft. In March 2019, it became known that the Mexican company considers the possibility to stop using SSJ-100. 

Overall, the prospects of the domestic airliner – dubbed “a PR project” – seem pretty cheerless. It is highly unlikely that anybody in the world buys it after the recent catastrophe – although the authorities take every effort to fend off any complaints against the technical parameters of the aircraft. To save its image, the investigators may lay the entire blame upon the pilots. And Sukhoi Superjet would continue flights – while the size of its fleet will be steadily declining due to various reasons.

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